Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria

Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

 

THE TOPLINE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE has asked his national security adviser John Bolton to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington for a second summit.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that plans are underway for a second summit after Trump floated the news in an earlier tweet on Thursday. 

"In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs," Sanders tweeted. "President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway."

 

The background: Sanders's tweet came three days after the two leaders held talks in Finland, igniting a political firestorm in the United States after Trump appeared to put equal weight in Putin's denial of involvement in the 2016 election with the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere.

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Since then, Trump and his aides have sought to walk back his comments in Helsinki. On Tuesday, the president insisted that he misspoke when he said that he saw no reason why Russia would meddle in U.S. political affairs, explaining that he meant to say he did not know why Moscow "wouldn't" interfere.

He also insisted that he believed the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 election – a remark that he appeared to undercut almost immediately by saying that it "could be other people also."

 

Coats caught off guard: NBC's Andrea Mitchell on Thursday appeared to break the news to Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsCNN: Trump intel chief not consulted before decision to revoke Brennan's clearance Study: 3 of every 10 House candidate websites vulnerable to hacks West Virginia set to allow smartphone voting for those serving overseas MORE that the White House has invited  Putin to Washington, D.C., for a second meeting this fall.

"We have some breaking news, the White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall," Mitchell said during an event with Coats at the Aspen Security Forum.

"Say that again?" Coats replied, before laughing. 

 

White House backs off from Putin questioning Americans: The White House on Thursday also backed off a proposal from Putin to question U.S. citizens over alleged crimes in Russia after initially indicating Trump would consider the matter.

"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. "Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt."

Following the backpedaling, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution warning Trump not to let the Russian government question diplomats and other officials.

 

And Russia announces new nuclear weapons tests: Russia is reportedly testing a range of new nuclear weapons and other military hardware including a high-powered laser, just days after the Trump-Putin summit.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Russia had tested weapons that range from the laser weapon system to a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The cruise missile is reported to have "unlimited" range. 

On Thursday, the country's Defense Ministry reportedly said that it had tested the Burevestnik cruise missile and is now preparing it for a flight test. 

 

Here are a few more stories from The Hill on Trump, Russia:

-- Top intel chief: I don't know what Trump, Putin discussed in meeting

-- Trump: Obama was a 'patsy for Russia'

-- GOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia

-- Flake: Trump's Russia summit 'truly an Orwellian moment'

-- DHS chief backs up intel assessment that Russia interfered in US elections

-- Top intel chief on statement after Trump-Putin summit: 'I was just doing my job'

-- GOP votes down Dem motion to subpoena interpreter from Trump, Putin meeting

-- Schumer to Trump: No one-on-one talks with Putin until Helsinki details released

And The Hill's Rebecca Kheel has a piece on how Trump's policies and actions toward Russia are creating a divide in Washington. Read about that here.

 

VOTEL: NO NEW ORDERS ON SYRIA AFTER TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: The top U.S. general in the Middle East on Thursday said he had received no new guidance on changes toward the Russian military in Syria since the Helsinki summit with Trump and Putin.

"For us right now it's kind of steady as she goes," U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters at the Pentagon via video monitor.

"We have received no further direction than we've currently been operating under."

 

The background: The United States and Russia have backed opposing sides in Syria's civil war, which is still ongoing after more than seven years.

On Monday in Helsinki, Trump and Putin outlined broad plans for increased cooperation between their two countries on international security matters. They did not say what verbal agreements were made.

The Russian Defense Ministry said a day later on Tuesday that it's ready to step up cooperation with the U.S. military in Syria.

 

The rules as they are: Asked about current U.S. law -- which prohibits coordination and collaboration with the Russian military -- Votel acknowledged that Congress would have to make legislative changes before the U.S. military could fully work with Russian forces.

"The National Defense Authorization Act, as a law, prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with Russian forces so that does guide our activities," Votel said, referring to the rule made after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.

Votel added that any legal space for U.S. forces to cooperate with the Russians in Syria "would have to be created by Congress or a waiver that they approve to allow us to do something like that."

"I have not asked for that at this point. We'll see what direction comes down," he said.

 

Graham says he would consider such a waiver: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOn The Money: Turkey slaps more tariffs on US goods | Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill | Senate turns to toughest 'minibus' yet Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE (R-S.C.) on Thursday said he would consider granting the U.S. military a waiver to coordinate with Russian forces in Syria, adding that he'd "have to think long and hard" about such a move.

"That will be an interesting exercise," Graham told reporters. "I want to give our commanders what they need to deal with the battle space and keep our troops safe. I'll have to think long and hard about that one."

 

 

IN OTHER NEWS... SENATE SETS VOTE FOR VA NOMINEE: The Senate is scheduled to vote next week on Trump's pick to the lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senator reviving effort to rein in Trump on tariffs The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape MORE (R-Ky.) teed up a vote on Robert Wilkie's nomination for 5:30 p.m. on Monday.

 

Strong support: Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonOvernight Defense: Questions mount over Trump's Iran tweet | House, Senate unveil compromise defense bill | Bill includes Russia sanctions waivers, limits on Turkey's access to F-35 | Endangered species measures dropped Senate confirms Trump's VA pick despite opposition from some Dems This week: House GOP heads for the exit MORE (R-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said earlier Thursday that the Senate should vote to confirm Wilkie "without delay."

"It is of utmost importance that any policy changes that impact the future of the department be made by a confirmed VA secretary who can be held accountable by Congress and the American people," Isakson said.

 

Little waves: Wilkie's nomination has been fairly low key.

Questions were temporally raised about his nomination when The Washington Post reported that Wilkie has worked throughout his career for polarizing lawmakers and officials, whose controversial views he has defended.

But Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPearl Jam criticized for poster featuring dead Trump, burning White House Montana GOP Senate hopeful touts Trump's support in new ad Vulnerable Dems side with Warren in battle over consumer bureau MORE (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Senate's veterans panel, defended Wilkie, saying at the time that the nominee is qualified and a "good guy," and would wait to see Wilkie's response to the questions.

"That's why we're having a hearing," Tester said. "He'll have an opportunity to answer some of those questions. Many of them happened 20 years ago."

Wilkie defended his stance toward women and minorities during his confirmation hearing, telling lawmakers, "I will stand on my record."

 

ICYMI:

-- The Hill: Montenegro pushes back on Trump comments: Alliance with US is 'strong and permanent'

-- The Hill: Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia

-- The Hill: Albright: 'Outrageous' for White House to consider Russian proposal to question US ambassador

-- The Hill: Clapper: Intel officials showed Trump evidence of Putin's role in election meddling

-- The Hill: Kerry on Trump's Russia response: 'I don't buy his walk-back for one second'

-- The Hill: Opinion: The sobering reasons Congress must step up on arms control

-- Defense News: Congress would stop Trump from leaving NATO, key senators say